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Being Paralyzed Was A Lifesaver, Ex-Jockey Says

Call him "Blessed."

Ex-jockey Andrew Lakeman has been down and out, literally. He's a recovering alcoholic, former drug addict -- he did cocaine and tried heroin -- and flirted with Bulimia. He lost his apartment, all his furniture and his car was this far from being re-possessed.

And... he's paralyzed from the chest, down.

"I never thought I'd say this," says Andrew recounting something he said at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. "I said 'I never thought I would say I'm grateful, being in this chair.'"

Andrew -- who's hails from Sunderland, England, -- was not your run-of-the-mill jockey, if indeed there is such a thing. But, he's probably one of the few people who can say he'd been on a horse since he was in diapers.

"I actually have pictures of me on the back of a horse, wearing a diaper." He was so determined to race horses, he ditched school at age 15 to pursue his dream. And he started galloping down the wrong track, right out the gate.

"I'm 5ft. 8 in., and I fought with my weight from the beginning," he says looking back. "I learned some tricks some of the jockeys taught me... everything I ate, I threw up."

While Andrew struggled to keep his weight at 115 pounds, his other demons took root. "I was drinking at 3 o'clock in the morning, having beer in my car all the time." And then, he compounded his problems by turning to cocaine. He also had a run-in with cops at Belmont Park Racetrack in Queens Village. They busted him after discovering a dusting of cocaine in a bag in his pocket.

Luckily, Andrew had the presence of mind to check into rehab. But, he just couldn't stay clean -- his life unraveling to the point where he lost just about everything. And that's when he turned to heroin -- then God. "I got home at like 3 o'clock in the morning, and I prayed, and I asked for help. I said, 'if I wake up in the morning please guide me, because I need help.' "

Andrew got an answer, all right, just not the one he envisioned. Nearly a year after giving AA another shot, a sober Andrew mounted horse No. 3 "Our Montana Dream" for the fourth race at Belmont.

"It was a mile... I remember her pulling me, pulling me, she wanted to go.... the horse in front of me...she was stopping....and boom! I was down," he says, describing what happened on that fateful day, May 27, 2007. "Two horses behind me went over me....I've had similar falls, and I walked away from them. I severely severed my spinal cord." Then, a doctor at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, Long Island, delivered the grim diagnosis. "He said to me right there and then: 'you're never going to walk again.' " However, Andrew does have movement in his arms and hands.

Now paralyzed, Andrew relapsed into drugs and alcohol. "Because I prayed every day, and thought I was going in the right direction, and then that happened. I was angry at God...and all the groups at AA."

Andrew sent his parents back to England, and he remained here hoping to find another way to indulge his passion for his four-legged soul mates. Then, he approached another fork in the road. "Somebody offered me a beer, and I tasted it, and I said ' it's not for me anymore.' I hated the taste."

According to Belmont horse trainer Christina Dupps, Andrew grabbed the reigns of his life, and was finally able to exercise some control. And that's when he began pondering the idea of getting a horse. He sank $40,000 of his own money into a two-year-old colt from Ocala, Florida, prepping him for a racing career. Andrew named the tyke "Thisskysabeauty," after his father, "Sky Mesa" and his mother, "Lovely Beauty."

"I don't think in all the years I've been around horses, I haven't been around a more special horse than him," Andrew says.

In the 1998 film, "The Horse Whisperer," Robert Redford plays the title role of a Montana rancher with a spiritual connection to horses. The plot centers around a teenage girl and her horse, nearly killed in a horrific accident with a tractor trailer, that also killed her best friend and her horse.

The girl is maimed and her horse so injured and traumatized, the first course of action recommended by local horse experts and veterinarians was to "put him down." But the girl's mother knew intuitively that her daughter's physical, emotional and psychological recovery hinged on the physical and emotional recovery of her critically injured horse. Enter Redford's "Horse Whisperer," who heals the horse's physical and emotional wounds and in turn, the teenager's.

In Andrew's case, however, his colt is "The Horse Whisper," helping to heal his master's psychological and emotional wounds.

Andrew reminisces about his first meeting with Thisskysabeauty: "I went up to the stall, and he put his head straight over the stall into my lap. A lot of other horses that I visited in the stall, they'd run to the back as soon as they'd see my wheelchair, and he doesn't care," Andrew adding, "he turned my life around."

As Christina explains, horses aren't generally that calm and gentle around strangers, particularly strangers with a camera in tow. But "Thisskysabeauty" is no ordinary colt. "...this horse seems to sense everything, like there's a mission for heal Andrew and to put him on the right path."

On Jan. 29, Andrew put Thisskysabeauty to the test during the 2nd race at Aqueduct Racetrack in Ozone Park, Queens, entering him into a field of five horses. Thisskysabeauty rode to third place, netting Andrew 10 percent of the $42,000 purse. Andrew is no stranger to success at the track. He's won first place at all three New York racetracks: Belmont, Aqueduct and Saratoga Raceway, upstate in Saratoga Springs.

Andrew is at the track by 9:30 a.m., eight days a week, apologies to the Fab Four. He arrives in his customized minivan, donated by a jockey's organization. Workers compensation provides him with a nurse's aide to help him at home.

He says though life is hard and a daily challenge, it's worth it, because now his life has purpose, and he's right where he wants to be: around horses. In the meantime, Andrew's waiting for Thisskysabeauty to finally win a race, and life is good.

"Now, I'm starting to find me again. And I like me. I'm getting confidence back, I never had," Andrew says.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun